An alert has been issued by federal counter-terrorism officials urging pilots and workers to keep an eye out for suspicious activity at smaller private airports during this weekend’s observance of the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
There are more than two dozen smaller airports and airfields in Maryland, including Freeway Airport in Bowie. Matt Lindquist, a chief instructor there, says in the years since the attacks on 9/11, there have been occasional inquiries from potential students that raised suspicion.
"'What’s the range of your aircraft, or 'how much fuel can I put on board,' how easy is it for me to take off in an airplane, these kind of insensitive questions, kind of raise your curiosity and suspicion level,” says Lindquist.
The alert issued this week by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security points to no specific threat but warns: "Violent extremists with knowledge of general aviation and access to small planes pose a significant potential threat to the homeland."
Smaller public airfields are not policed by the Transportation Security Administration, nor are they required to use the high-tech screening devices found at commercial airports. There is, however, a measure of aircraft security endemic to the Washington D.C. region that guards the skies 24-7: the Special flight Rules Area.
Any pilot that operates within a 60-nautical-mile perimeter area of D.C. must go through special training and security awareness. The requirements for operating within the 60-mile radius include background checks, knowledge and transmission of a discreet code, and continuous communication with air traffic controllers. Any violation while in flight triggers a response by well armed combat aircraft.
"So any airspace violations are probably transient pilots from elsewhere who just don’t fly here on a daily basis," he says.
Lindquist says although he agrees with the need for increased vigilance, he’s concerned general aviation is being singled out.
“Whenever these advisories come out, it’s always general aviation that’s penalized the most," he says. "Maybe I’m just not sensitive to it, but I don’t hear restrictions imposed on commercial trucking or boats for example.”
FAA figures currently show 228,000 general aviation aircraft at 4,000 airports across the U.S.